16 November 2020
George Prescott looks at how early gunmakers developed weapons that could fire successive shots without reloading.
The length of time required to charge and prime a muzzle-loading weapon meant that many early inventors tried to produce a firearm that was capable of firing successive shots without reloading. The usual solution to this problem and, incidentally one still in use today, was to produce a weapon with two or more barrels, exemplified by modern smooth-bore shotguns and the smaller, multi-barrelled ‘Derringer’ pattern pistols.
Double-barrelled and occasionally triple-barrelled flintlock and percussion weapons were produced by a number of makers, both with fixed barrels and turnover mechanisms, one particularly unusual type being a device known as the Duck’s foot pistol. This weapon was made with four barrels radiating from the single lock in a manner reminiscent of a duck’s foot, hence its popular name amongst collectors. The barrels were fired simultaneously from the single lock when the trigger was pulled, with an effect similar to the larger volley guns. It was exceedingly uncomfortable to shoot according to contemporary accounts and also suffered from the major disadvantage of being fearsomely inaccurate, so that anyone standing in front of the muzzles was in danger, whether friend or foe.
Although multi-barrelled weapons were the most common solution to the problem of multi-firing before the invention of the percussion cap, a number of other mechanisms were also used. As well as the various designs of revolving pistol, with a number of barrels usually turned by hand in an early form of the pepperbox revolver, two other types predominated: Roman Candle guns, which incorporated a system using successively loaded charges of powder and a pierced ball, and the magazine gun, where powder and shot were stored in sealed containers or magazines within the gun, and it had a mechanism which the shooter operated to deliver both components to the breech for firing.
Superimposed charge guns
Pistols, muskets and rifles which fired the first and subsequent loads after only one ignition have been known since the beginning of the 15th century and are referred to by collectors as Roman Candle guns, because one shot follows another after only a single ignition. Weapons of this design are found with matchlock, wheellock and flintlock ignition systems and in their simplest form utilised bullets in which a hole had been drilled through the centre of the ball, which was filled with some sort of combustible material to act as a fuse. Balls and charges were loaded successively, care being necessary to ensure that each ball was a tight fit and that the fused holes in the bullets were correctly aligned parallel to the axis of the barrel.
Pulling the trigger operated the lock mechanism, igniting the first powder charge, which in turn fired the ball from the muzzle and ignited the combustible material in the ball beneath. When the fuse burnt through, it ignited the powder charge below it and the whole process repeated itself until every ball has been fired. Some muskets were produced with this mechanism that their makers insisted were capable of reliably firing between seven and ten balls in rapid succession, although the time required to reload after firing in order to ensure successful ignition of each charge must have been considerable.
Pistols with a fixed internal magazine do not seem to have been produced by a significant number of gunsmiths, although pistols with a number of barrels which were turned by hand were quite common and usually based on a design originally sold by Henry Nock. These were not true revolvers, however, since, unlike many of the later percussion pepperbox revolvers, the barrels had to be positioned by hand and then locked in place by means of a turn-key.
What is usually considered to be the first true, self-indexing flintlock revolver ever produced was a weapon designed by Elisha Collier, who offered both pistols and revolving rifles made to this design for sale in 1818. Operation was relatively complex: the cylinders were first loaded in the conventional manner with powder and ball and the priming magazine in the frizzen filled with a finer grade of loose powder. The cylinder was then drawn back against the action of a spring and twisted, which in turn worked against a second, helical spring incorporated in the cylinder mechanism. With the helical spring fully wound, the cylinder was eased forward and the mouth of the chamber adjacent to the barrel was allowed to rest against the breech end of the barrel; the barrel and all of the chambers were machined in an attempt to ensure that the two components were a gas-tight fit.
To fire the weapon, the hammer of the single-action mechanism was cocked and the trigger pulled, discharging the first chamber under the hammer. Cocking the hammer for the second shot caused a small hook linked to the hammer to catch in a circular notched skirt, which was attached to the rear of the cylinder, drawing the cylinder back and allowing the mechanism’s helical spring to rotate the cylinder to the next chamber. As the fresh chamber came opposite the barrel, the hook was disengaged and the cylinder mouth pushed onto the barrel cone by the second spring. The frizzen was then snapped down by the user and a quantity of priming powder was deposited into the flash pan from the frizzen magazine. Unfortunately, Collier soon found this method of cylinder rotation too problematic to be reliable and most of his weapons have hand-rotated cylinders – the cylinder was simply pulled back, turned and then allowed to snap into place.
Jarre’s Harmonica pistol
Several designs of both percussion and pin-fire harmonica pistol were also offered for sale, their name being derived from the shape and function of the magazine. Most notable amongst the makers of this type of pistol was the French gunsmith M.J. Jarre, although despite his excellent workmanship, the guns seem to have been neither popular nor successful. Conformation of these guns is similar, whoever made them: a pistol of conventional shape with a rectangular breech opening. This opening was designed to accept the magazine, which consisted of a steel bar drilled with a number of percussion chambers, which were fitted individually with a cone (or nipple) designed to accept a conventional percussion cap. The cones were screwed into a cavity in the upper surface of the magazine connecting with the chamber below.
Each chamber was loaded in the usual manner with powder and ball and the chambers were then capped. After loading, the slide was inserted in the breech of the gun, the first chamber was correctly positioned over the breech-end of the barrel and the slide was locked in position. With cocked hammer, the weapon was now ready to fire. After firing, the mechanism securing the slide magazine was released, the slide was repositioned so that the second chamber was in line with the barrel, and having once again been locked into position, the hammer only needed to be cocked to make the gun ready to fire the second load. Pin-fire weapons were similar, except the chambers were loaded with the appropriate calibre of pin-fire cartridge, which were ignited by the hammer operating in a similar manner to the earlier percussion weapons.
Repeating flintlock muskets and rifles
The development of early repeating rifles paralleled that of the repeating pistol and both Roman Candle guns and magazine weapons were produced by a number of gunmakers. Of particular note are the Roman Candle guns manufactured under a US Patent by Joseph Chambers, who sold 850 muskets, rifles and pistols of this design to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the US Navy, and which were actually used in action during the war of 1812.
Of the magazine weapons, arms manufactured by the Florentine gunsmith Michele Lorenzoni, around 1680, are most common, although it seems at least doubtful if Lorenzoni actually invented the gun which bears his name. They feature a double-magazine system and were unique at the time for also incorporating a mechanism which cocked and primed the weapon in a single operation. The Lorenzoni rifle is also referred to as the Cookson rifle by American collectors, because the first rifle of this type recorded in America bore the name of a London gunsmith, John Cookson, one weapon being recorded with the date 1666 (possibly 1686) stamped on the metal work. It should also be noted that a later American gunsmith, also John Cookson, was making guns to this pattern in Boston 100 years later, in 1756, so care must be exercised in differentiating products from their respective workshops. An earlier weapon, produced by Peter Kalthoff, sometime before 1650, also features two magazines, although its mechanism, more complex and less robust than that of the later weapon, ensured that it never became as widespread or popular as the significantly more reliable Lorenzoni guns.
A Lorenzoni/Cookson rifle or pistol was constructed with both the ball and powder magazines in the butt of the weapon, with a smaller magazine for priming powder in the lock, the two larger magazines being accessed by a revolving, cylindrical breech-block in which there were two cavities.
To operate the weapon, it was first held with the muzzle pointing upwards and the operating lever of the breech block on the left side of the weapon pulled to the rear to its full extent, allowing the two cavities in the breech-block to align with their respective butt magazines. The orientation of the gun was then reversed, with the muzzle pointing down, and this action allowed a ball to move into one cavity and a measured charge of powder to flow into the second. With the gun still held muzzle down, the operating lever was then moved fully forward, delivering both the ball and powder to the chamber in turn, whilst at the same time priming and cocking the weapon. All that is subsequently required to fire the weapon is to pull the trigger. This was a remarkably innovative design, especially considering that the first examples of a gun based on this system began to appear in Italy about 1680 and that H.W. Mortimer Snr was still making guns of this type in 1800, a quite remarkable span for the production life of a flintlock repeater.
These weapons were another attempt to produce a repeating rifle designed for magazine operation, which was also reliable and cheap enough for battlefield use. Like the pistols, these guns were ostensibly breech-loaders, although they are charged by having the load inserted into the front of each of the separate chambers. The chambers were then capped separately and the magazine loaded in much the same way as one of Jarre’s harmonica pistols. A number of gunmakers produced pistols and rifles of this type during the early 19th century and most notable for their design and quality are the American weapons of Jonathan Browning, father of John Moses Browning.
The Browning slide repeating rifle
Browning invented what he called his sliding-breech rifle sometime between 1834 and 1842, while he was living in Quincy, Illinois, and probably before he became involved with the Church of the Latter Day Saints. His gun seems to have been a commercial success, despite each weapon taking about two weeks to make and costing $24. Although it seemed to be popular, examples are rarely seen at auction. The gun is similar in design and function to the more usual harmonica guns, having the appearance of a conventional rifle, with a slot manufactured in the breech to accept the five-chambered magazine or slide.
These weapons had a conventional percussion mechanism with a single trigger and an octagonal barrel of between 30 and 36 inches. Trigger-guards and butt-plates were in brass and the stock and woodwork of recorded examples appear to have been patterned on the contemporary Kentucky rifle, with its characteristic shape to the butt and a forestock extending to the muzzle. Firing followed the usual procedure: the releasing lever on the right of the weapon was first lifted so that the magazine could be inserted and moved across the loading slot until the first chamber was correctly lined up with the barrel. The releasing lever was then depressed, which moved the magazine forward and sealed the protruding breech end of the magazine chamber against the recess machined in the end of the barrel, which was designed to accept it, a system intended to minimise losses from escaping gas. The hammer was then cocked and the weapon fired, whereupon the magazine could be moved across by hand and the whole cycle began again.
Roman Candle guns
NRA Good: £2,000 NRA Fine: £5,000
Rare at auction
The Collier revolver
NRA Good: £5,000 NRA Fine: £7,500
Rare at auction
Jarre’s Harmonica Pistol
NRA Good: £3,000 NRA Fine: £5,000
Very rare at auction
The Lorenzoni rifle
NRA Good: £8,000 NRA Fine: £12,000
Very rare at auction
The Browning slide repeating rifle
NRA Good: £30,000 NRA Fine: £150,000
Rare at auction
Can't get to the newsagents for your copy of The Armourer? Order it online (now with free postage!) or take out a subscription and avoid the general public for the next 12 months entirely. And if you're confined to quarters, stock up on some bookazines to keep you entertained.
Buy the latest copy or any back issues, either in print or digital editions by clicking on The Armourer.
Celebrate the heroes of the Battle of Britain with a commemorative bookazine, with colour images throughout, for £8.99. Get your 164 page copy here.
Buy a copy of Aircraft of the RAF, featuring 595 flying machines, for £7.99 by clicking here.
Or how about a copy of the Collecting German Militaria bookazine for £7.99? Click here to buy this.